Day hikes may not seem nearly as intense as multi-day backpacking trips, and that is true to an extent—while backpacking and camping do require more packing and preparing, the principles of getting ready for a day hike are more or less the same. Just minus the tent.
It’s a common mistake to assume that you can show up to the trailhead without the proper supplies. Don’t let this be you. Even a casual day hike, done well, requires some prepping and packing. This day hiking checklist will show you everything you will need to safely enjoy the great outdoors on your next hiking trip.
Read on to learn:
Remember: You don’t have to be over-the-top with your packing, but you do need to make sure that you’re not taking unnecessary risks by hitting the trail empty-handed. Packing the right safety gear, clothing, and food goes a long way toward a safe and enjoyable hiking experience. Here are the things you will need with you (we broke up this list with must-have items and nice-to-have items) when you embark on your next day hike.
A “daypack” that is about 20 liters in volume is a perfect size for day hikes. It will provide ample space for your essentials and food, but won’t be too big to weigh you down as you hike.
Note: Keep reading to check out our guide on deciding what sized backpack you should use.
First Aid Kit
When it comes to first aid, a simple kit will do just fine. Antihistamines, bandaids, bug spray, matches, and poison ivy treatment are invaluable when you need them, so make sure you have those items in your kit.
Download trail maps on your phone or go the old-fashioned route and bring a paper map and compass. No matter what type of navigation, make sure you have something to help you find your way in case you lose sight of the trail.
Helpful for steep trails, trekking poles can take the impact off of your knees when heading up and downhill. Some hikers find they get in the way more than they help, so it’s up to your personal preference, skill, and comfort level on the trails whether or not you bring them.
Toilet Paper and Hygiene Products
Your need for toilet paper and other hygiene products will depend on the length of your hike. Just remember that if you plan to be on the trail for more than a few hours, bathrooms won’t be nearby.
Headlamp and Flashlight
Again, you probably won’t need a headlamp or flashlight on shorter hikes, but the sun does set faster behind large hills and mountains. Also, it’s best to be on the safe side and pack one if you’re going on a longer day hike, just in case.
On short day hikes, what clothing you wear and pack isn’t very important. A 3-mile hike is likely going to be fine whether you wear jeans, leggings, shorts, or high-tech hiking pants. Longer hikes, too, might not necessitate you being decked out in the latest hiker-wear. However, if you were to start a hiking wardrobe from scratch and want to ensure you’re prepared for anything—even cold weather, you should have the following:
A pair of breathable hiking pants will be more comfortable than shorts, even in the hottest weather. Sunburn, scrapes, and poison ivy are each less of a concern when you’re wearing pants.
Merino wool and polyester are great materials for hiking shirts. They’re light, breathable, and wicks sweat away from your body. Unless it’s dreadfully hot, long sleeves are usually the way to go, for the same reason that pants are better than shorts. Plus, hiking at higher altitudes can get cold, fast—it’s better to sweat a little at the bottom of a mountain than it is to freeze at the top.
The same materials, wool and polyester, make for the best hiking socks, too. Crossing streams and walking through mud is less impactful if the socks you’re wearing won’t be soaked for the rest of the day (as they would be with cotton). You should also look for socks that are at least ankle length, preferably longer. That way, your ankles are protected from thorns, brambles, etc.
Boots or Trail Running Shoes
It doesn’t matter too much whether you choose trail running shoes or hiking boots. What’s important is that your shoes have the appropriate amount of traction and toughness to get you up and over rocks, mud, logs, and whatever else may lie in your path. Hiking boots offer more ankle support, and trail running shoes are lighter; outside of that, their performance is roughly the same.
Note: Keep reading to learn what clothing items you should avoid wearing.
Hat and Sunglasses
Accessory items such as hats and sunglasses aren’t a necessity exactly, but you’ll almost certainly use them if you bring them—and you may likely miss them if you forget them. Unless you’re hiking in extreme temperatures or at very high altitudes (above 8,000 feet), though, they aren’t absolutely necessary.
Snowsuits, goggles, parkas, and other winter-specific gear are things you will need when the temperatures dip below freezing. If you’re doing a cold-weather day hike, you can use our winter backpacking checklist to make sure you’ve got all the gear you need.
To your ankles what a coat is to your upper body, gaiters add an extra layer of protection against the elements. If it’s going to be exceptionally muddy, snowy, or wet, gaiters will keep your feet dry and comfortable.
At a bare minimum, bring 1 liter of water with you on a day hike. If you’re hiking more than a few miles, it’s a good idea to have more. You’ll be more thirsty on the trail than you would be at home, so make sure you’ve got enough fluids. On top of that, extra water will be immensely valuable if anything happens and you’re trapped overnight waiting for help.
Snacks and Meals
What you bring, and how much, is largely up to your own judgment. You'll need something to keep your energy levels up, so make sure you add enough snacks to your day hiking checklist. Salty and protein-heavy foods are the best trail snacks; they are quickly turned into energy and the salt helps replenish the sodium your body loses by sweating.
If you’re hiking far from civilization or in an unfamiliar area, it’s a good idea to have a little bit of extra food in case of emergencies.
Having some iodine tablets, a LifeStraw, or any other method for purifying water lets you carry less water because you can refill as you hike. It’s also very helpful in case of emergencies—you can survive a lot longer if you have a source of clean water.
“If I’m loading all this stuff into a backpack, am I not backpacking at this point?” For beginners, a lot of hiking and outdoor terminology can be confusing. Hiking, and more specifically day hiking, turns into backpacking only when you are spending the night on the trail.
When backpacking, you need a much larger pack (usually 40 liters at minimum) so that you can fit your tent and sleeping system, usually consisting of a 15-degree down sleeping bag or synthetic sleeping bag and light sleeping pad along with extra food and clothing.
Day hiking is a great way to get into hiking as a beginner or to prep for a longer backpacking trip. These hikes can be as intense or leisurely as you like; the only thing that distinguishes day hiking and backpacking is whether or not you plan to stay the night in the woods. If you’re planning an overnight trip, read our overnight backpacking checklist to make sure you’ve got everything you need.
The length of a “day hike” in terms of distance is hard to define because it depends on the person hiking, as well as the trail. While some seasoned thru-hikers (people who have hiked long trails like the Appalachian Trail) can do 25 miles in a day, most people cannot.
The average for a long day hike, for most people in average physical shape, is about 12 miles. If the area you are hiking in is especially mountainous, that number might be lower; if you are hiking in flat areas, it may be higher.
Generally, when people refer to “day hiking,” they are talking about hikes that last between 3 and 10 hours total. Hikes that last less than three hours can still be called day hikes, but most people refer to them as “short hikes.” It’s a very minor distinction, but helpful nonetheless.
The Ten Essentials, since being published in a mountaineering book decades ago, have become the standard for emergency preparedness in any camping, backpacking, or hiking situation. But, if you’re only hiking 5 miles just outside your hometown, do you really need to pack emergency shelter and an extra day’s supply of food, as recommended?
The truth is, if you aren’t hiking overnight, the Ten Essentials (navigation, headlamp, sub protection, first aid, knife, fire, shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes) don’t make much sense to prioritize in your packing. Packing all 10 of them would add too much excess weight to your backpack, and you'll likely end up carrying things you’ll never need. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared. Rather, you should prepare in proportion to the size of a potential emergency.
For example, if you’re hiking in a semi-familiar area near your home and will have cell service, you don’t need to worry much. On the other hand, if you’re in a brand new place, taking a full day hike without cell service, you should focus more on the 10 essentials. If the potential severity of an emergency is high, bring more survival items. If it’s low, just make sure you tell someone where you’re going and know how to get out of trouble should it arise.
Shopping for backpacks is a journey of its own. There exists a seemingly impossible number of choices when it comes to brands, features, and even colors. There are two considerations you should give the most important when looking for the right backpack. The first is fit, the second is volume.
If a pack fits your body, that's the first green light. The second consideration, volume, takes a bit more thought. A 75-liter pack is perfect for long backpacking trips lasting longer than 5 nights; for a day hike, it’s overkill (and then some). Yet, a 20-liter pack, while great for day hikes, is pretty useless on anything but the simplest overnight.
If you plan to get into backpacking, it’s best to get a pack that’s at least 35 liters in volume. It’s small enough for day hikes, but still has enough room for a tent and sleeping bag when you want to get away for a little bit longer.
Getting ready for a day hike is more about planning than anything else. First, choose your trail wisely: Research the trail’s elevation, distance, and weather conditions to make sure it fits your level of fitness and experience.
If you aren’t big on exercising, you’ll also need to prepare your body. In the days leading up to your hike, do some exercises that’ll help keep your joints loose and muscles ready. Go for a walk or jog, do some yoga, or lift weights; it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something. This will help you enjoy the hike without feeling too much stiffness or pain due to the sudden increase in physical demand.
Many people, when they first pack for a hike or backpacking trip, realize that they’ve packed far more than they’ll ever need. Packing things you don’t need means you’re carrying unnecessary weight that’ll tire you out on the trail. For this reason, a growing trend among hikers is the “ultralight” philosophy—packing as light as possible.
Ultralight hikers and backpackers go to some extreme lengths to save weight: packing few extra clothes, spending hundreds of dollars on lighter equipment, and even filing down their toothbrushes to make them lighter. But, does all that effort to cut weight actually help?
There is a distinct advantage to packing light—you can go farther, faster, without getting tired. Ultralight hiking is easier on the knees and hips; 10 pounds on your back is much less impactful than 40. Plus, you feel a lot closer to nature when you pack only the absolute essentials. If you have a desire to be a bit more wild and rough it on the trail, ultralight packing might be right up your alley.
However, devoting your energy and money to becoming a true ultralight convert isn’t worth the effort. At the end of the day, a backpack that weighs half a pound more doesn’t make that much of a difference. Don’t get sidetracked by feeling the need to purchase only the lightest possible gear and leave certain comforts at home—keep your pack light, but within reason.
Your wardrobe is one of the most important factors in determining your comfort on a hike. More than that, wearing the right clothing can also keep you safe (especially footwear). With that in mind, here are a few things that you’re better off leaving at home:
Day hiking, though not as intense as long-distance backpacking, still requires a bit of advanced planning and a solid checklist. We covered everything you need (and a little that you don’t) on our day hiking checklist—use it to make sure you’re ready when you reach the trailhead. Do you have any questions about the list or suggestions on something we could add? Let us know in the comments section below!
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